Adam Smith (1723-1790) on mirror neurons and empathy
Thursday, 23 June 2011
Blog, Nicolas’ Blog
This post is part of a series on the ‘history of human sciences’.
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OK, I admit. Adam Smith never talked about mirror neurons. So why am I bringing this topic up? Because Smith actually did, in a way, tackle the debate about mirror neurons and empathy.
What is this debate? In recent years, empathy, understood as the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sentient being, has received more and more interest. In particular, the study of the neural underpinnings of empathy has received increased interest following a Behavioral and Brain Sciences target article published by Stephanie Preston and Frans de Waal, following the discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys that fire both when the creature watches another creature perform an action as well as when they perform it themselves. In their paper, they (as well as others like Gallese) argued that perception of the object’s state automatically activates neural representations, and that this activation automatically primes or generates the associated autonomic and somatic responses, unless inhibited.